Question: In the book of Judges, we read how the Israelites served 'Baal and Ashtaroth', pagan gods of the various nations (Judges 2:11-13), but Dagon, the god of the Philistines, is mentioned by name and often depicted as a 'fish-god'. How is Dagon different than the other idols?
Answer: Dagon was originally a Semitic deity, adopted by the Philistines after they invaded Canaan, ca. 1177 BC. We have records of Dagon dating to the 3rd dynasty of Ur in the 25th Century BC. Dagon was very popular among the Amorites, among whom 'Dagon' is a component of many personal names, and Assyrians.
Most scholars argue that he was originally a vegetation, grain, and wheat, deity. The name is very similar to the Hebrew word for 'grain', dagan. This would create an interesting irony in the Samson narratives, as Samson was forced to grind wheat for the Philistines (Judges 16). However, some descriptions seem to make Dagon a storm-god, possibly in connection with the need of rain for the wheat and grain harvest.
However, in iconography Dagon is often presented as a fish-god. This depiction has survived the centuries and is quite controversial. The reason it has survived is the similarity of the name to the Hebrew term dâg, meaning 'fish'. This connection was first popularized by Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (AD 1040-1105), author of an extensive commentary on the Tanakh. He imagined, based on this connection to the Hebrew term dâg, that Dagon was in the shape of a fish.
David Kimhi (AD 1160-1235), Medieval Rabbi and Bible Commentator, expanded upon the interpretation of Rashi. In his comments on 1 Samuel 5, wherein the Philistines placed the Ark with Dagon, he interpreted the statement 'only the flat part was left to him' (1 Samuel 5:4) as meaning 'only the form of a fish was left'. He reasoned that since the text mentions 'hands', Dagon was in the in the form of a fish from the waist down, hence the name, and in the form of a man from the waist up. One must note that the LXX mentions both hand and feet.
In 1928, H. Schmökel argued that Dagon was never a 'fish-god', half-man and half-fish. However, once his cult became important to the sea-faring and maritime peoples, such as the Phoenicians and Philistines, the false connection to dâg (fish) had a powerful impact on Dagon's ongoing iconography. Some scholars still insist that this merman image, half-man and half-fish, is a secondary aspect to this god of the Philistines. The Philistines were a powerful part of the invasion of the 'Sea Peoples' who swept through the Eastern end of the Mediterranean basin ca. 1200 BC. Therefore, a god with aquatic aspects could prove to be an important part of their pantheon.
Overall, Dagon is represented somewhat differently than other gods in the book of Judges. This is because he is linked to the Philistines, who seemed to have adopted Dagon very early, one of the most hated enemies of YHWH and Israel. The Philistines represented a more menacing type of threat than the local Canaanites who had inhabited the Promised Land. With their political and military organization the Philistines were a viable threat to wipe out Israel and thwart complete possession of the land. Their importance is fully seen in that, according to 2 Samuel 5, their defeat was a key to the establishment of Davidic power. The tensions between Israel and Philistia began with Samson, encompassed the careers of Samuel and Saul, and ended with David. Therefore, based on Dagon's long Semitic history and his connection with the Philistines, it is quite understandable that Dagon should be remembered in such detail by the biblical authors.